Last month, we were able to attend a lecture at the Senate House Library in London by Donna Haraway, a cultural theorist, feminist theorist, technology theorist, and general thinker without borders, probably best known for her 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century”.
We sat down in a pub after the lecture to try to work out some of Haraway’s points and extrapolate from them at the same time. What follows is an edited version of that excited and diversionary conversation. These thoughts aren’t finished, and there’s a lot of stuff about Haraway’s talk we didn’t fully understand, but we hope that through sharing we might infect readers with some of the enthusiasm we feel for Haraway’s speculative thinking.
I. Cat’s Cradle
Meagan: We should make it clear that neither of us comes from a disciplinary background in biology. We don’t know anything about Darwinian evolution besides what we learned in grade school.
Helen: We’re giving Donna Haraway the benefit of the doubt when it comes to hard science. Mainly we want to talk about intellectual trends signaled by changes in biological thought.
M: One of those trends being increasing visibility of this concept called symbiogenesis. That’s pretty much what Haraway’s talk was about.
H: Yeah, and Haraway wants to extrapolate from symbiogenesis to talk about contemporary modes of thought more generally. So we should probably start by explaining symbiogenesis.
M: Symbiogenesis is the idea that evolutionary theory doesn’t need to emphasize competition. Competition is the dominant framework, owing to Darwin’s Origin of Species. We were taught this in school—species are engaged in a bitter fight for survival, and they ascend the hierarchy of species by acquiring advantageous mutations. But according to Haraway — who is citing a number of other thinkers, particularly Lynn Margulis who wrote this book called Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species — this doesn’t account for the role cooperation plays in evolution. Symbiogenesis emphasizes the importance of microorganisms, of bacteria and infections. Seen in light of infection, evolution is always co-evolution. It becomes untenable to track the progress of an individual species the way Darwinian evolution does.
H: And in the sciences people are finding more and more evidence to support this symbiogenetic thesis. So, importantly, it’s not a metaphor: it’s an actual shift in scientific thought. But even though it’s not a metaphor, it has broader implications.
M: Yeah, definitely. This “becoming-with” as Haraway calls it is a conceptual framework that we see across disciplines, including literary theory, gender theory, non-Euclidian mathematics, etc.
H: And it’s not just that Haraway’s observing similarities across disciplines. Thinking about symbiogenesis has specific consequences for other modes of thought. Because as Haraway said, quoting feminist anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, “It matters what ideas one uses to think other ideas with.” And Darwinian evolution has been an idea that we’ve thought other ideas with for a long time now.
M: It’s a schema that has become really entrenched. And symbiogenesis is important for Haraway because it troubles a popular reliance on Darwinian evolution as a method of explaining change.
H: So, you can see this pretty clearly in a discipline like Art History. Your basic introductory art history course is taught in keeping with this Darwinian evolutionary model. At the risk of oversimplifying, the story goes that first in the 13th century people were painting the Madonna with no sense of space, and then they began to figure out how to make three-dimensional space, and then they developed actual mechanisms for making space. And the whole Renaissance is a process of understanding how to depict the world, etc. Some techniques win out over others, some aesthetic characteristics rise to the top, and so forth.
M: So art acquires different mutations to cope best with the cultural environment.
H: Even someone like Marcel Duchamp who was somehow throwing out all of conventional art history, or just post-structuralism more generally, gets incorporated into that narrative as a new cultural adaptation.
M: Donna Haraway would want to reevaluate the causal chain. She’d want us to think, following the model of symbiogenesis, not through mutation but through infection. Through cross-linkage, mutual influence, holistic change. Embracing infection is about embracing laterality. Infection is a multispecies process, and once it becomes the primary framework there’s really no way to tell the story of a single species.
H: So instead of visualizing an singular entity moving forward in time and space, we can visualize something more nebulous and enmeshed. She talked a lot about cat’s cradle and string figures. That’s a good visualization technique. Cat’s cradle requires multiple hands, and it involves creating complex webs, and it doesn’t have an end—it just keeps going and mutating.
M: When talking about cat’s cradle she used a phrase I love: “big generous knottings.” Haraway wants to look at how these big generous knottings have mutated over time, all together, instead of isolating individual species — or individual objects or ideologies or groups of people, etc. — and tracking their progress.
H: Yeah and, like we were saying, this way of thinking isn’t brand new. It’s integral to a lot of contemporary theory.
M: Essentially, Haraway is documenting this shift in contemporary biology from the position of an intellectual historian. The talk was mostly about biology. But she also mentioned that she saw it in literary theory, for instance, in the form of post-structuralism.
H: We should probably mention Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome here, because it’s another conceptual framework drawn from biology, and it’s very close to what Haraway describes when she talks about symbiogenesis. It’s taking as a model this plant-root system that grows through interconnection, so that its path of development can’t be traced or separated. They talk about the moth and the orchid forming a rhizome together, an interwoven, interdependent, co-evolved system of existence, and it’s very close to the kinds of “infective ecologies” that Haraway discusses.
M: But they say books and the world also form a rhizome, so that gives a sense of how expansive this kind of idea can be. It’s not just applicable to the natural world.
H: Haraway’s a biologist by training. But she’s also a critical theorist and a feminist theorist and she’s written about technology and cybernetics…
M: And the fact that she’s all of those things at once is a testament to her commitment to big generous knottings.
H: But it’s not about interdisciplinarity, and this is important. In contemporary academia we talk about the interdisciplinary all the time, and what it really often means is a false jamming-together of multiple but distinct disciplinary modes of thought. As a concrete example, I sat in on this class called Art and Politics, which treats art and politics as these discrete entities that sometimes make contact.
M: And you didn’t like that class. The reason why that doesn’t work is also part of why Donna Haraway prefers multispecies “becoming-with” to Darwinian evolution. It’s not about species encountering each other, encountering and reacting to one another. It’s not that politics acquires mutations because it bumps up against art.
H: And art doesn’t just bump up against politics and then acquire its own mutations.
M: Art and politics are inextricable. The boundary between them is porous.
H: Not one thing reacting to another or two discrete things reacting to each other.
M: I wish we could translate our hand-gestures.
H: We’re alternately slamming our fists together and interlacing our fingers.
M: They’re opposite gestures. The former denotes competition and acquisition of mutations, and the latter is multi-species becoming-with.
H: So, back on track, the more interesting and important way to look at art and politics is to consider them as this mesh [weaves fingers together], to look at the politics of art and the art of politics. And infection is her way of talking about it. Infection’s about constant tension, constant interaction, and coevolution —
II. The Phallic Construction of Time
M: Do you want to talk about the phallus now?
H: Yes! So, here Haraway started out with literature, instead of biology, with Ursula K. Le Guin, who wrote this essay called “The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction.” This is where she started getting into thinking about thought in the shape of a phallus versus a web or a mesh or something that can contain something else.
M: Yeah, so in this essay that Haraway talks about, Le Guin talks about two different models of storytelling: the linear, Herculean, striving story, which is basically the phallic story and is the prevailing narrative mode, and stories that engage containers and baskets and sharing of energy sources rather than conflict, where this mixing is the way the narrative moves forward.
H: So, this idea of evolving through conflict versus evolving through mixing and sharing has come up in other contexts for me recently, looking at the evolution of technology and media. In cybernetic theory there’s the idea of positive feedback, a loop in which both sides, technology and humans, are adjusting to each other.
M: And this adjustment happens to the extent that the ‘both sides’ terminology becomes inapplicable.
H: Yeah. What gradually happens is an interweaving, the machine learns from you and you learn from it. The machine changes, you change, and the divide between you and the machine gradually disappears. And the opposite of this looping spatial metaphor is a phallic conception of history and change. It’s a question of visualizing the progression of history as humans moving forward in the world —
M: Figuratively, along a line — a thrust along a line through time and space. Interacting with other things but remaining singular and discrete from them. Protruding into their environment but never becoming their environment, never “becoming-with.”
H: Right, pushing into the world and making more space in the world, in the way that, conceptually speaking, a phallus does.
M: This reminds me of Eve Sedgwick. In Touching Feeling she writes about not wanting to uncover the truth, because to uncover the truth has this moving backwards or moving downwards connotation, so it’s always teleological. Instead she’s interested in using different spatial metaphors—replacing behind and underneath with alongside and between. These lateral spatial metaphors are anti-dualistic, i.e. they’re not just about a thing interacting with other, separate things.
H: And those spatial metaphors offer an alternative to thinking about history in a rigid way. For Haraway, moving away from a phallic conception — let’s keep saying phallic because that’s fun — of biology means moving away from a phallic construction of time, or put another way, the dominant narrative of history.
M: History as a site of infection. In her title she uses that term SF, which stands for, among other things, scientific facts, speculative feminisms, string figures, science fiction, and so far…
H: [laughs] What did she say about “so far”?
M: She said she wanted us to think with her. She wasn’t giving us information that we could take home and implement, she was—
H: It’s not at all presented as a finished idea, not an answer, because—
M: Because the concept of the ‘finished idea’ is rooted in this phallic telos thing that she’s trying to… what?
H: Castrate. [laughter]
III. Sticking with the Trouble
M: Haraway’s talk was called “Cosmopolitical Critters: Companion Species, SF, and Staying with the Trouble.” We talked about the first two. So what’s the trouble?
H: The trouble is the “double death,” to use her term, of humans and all other life on the planet. It’s the constant end of life. It’s the part where we think about how to confront the big problems of the world, and it’s where things get extra confusing.
M: But to be clear, she’s not feeling squeamish about death per se. Death is not the problem for her. Change isn’t even the problem for her. Things die, species run their course, and over long periods of time drastic ecological change occurs. That’s not the problem.
H: The problem is that we, humans, refuse to understand that these changes are not problematic simply because they constitute humans hurting the environment (one distinct thing impacting a second distinct thing), but they also fundamentally change us.
M: Right. And it’s not as simple as we hurt the environment and then the environment turns around and hurts us with hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis. That’s still too dualistic, and anthropocentric. It’s something much more subtle and intertwined than that, a constant double death.
H: And because of this, it doesn’t make sense for humans to go out and “save” the environment. Again, we’re talking about shifting the way we think about these problems. It is not an issue of hospitality, caring for this lovely world we have been given.
M: So what about solutions to massive environmental trauma caused by human civilization?
H: That is where staying with the trouble comes in. For example, she talked about how the death of the coral reefs is inevitable. She said, “The coral reefs are a matter of hospice care.” She doesn’t believe we will be able to find a solution to that particular problem.
M: But that’s because we are thinking about the term solution all wrong. An environmental solution is usually talked about as a thing that transports the natural world back to its “originary” state, before it was threatened by human life. This conception of solutions suggests that, as people who care about ecological problems or even political problems more generally, the way to solve problems is to move backward in time, back to some earlier, Edenic state.
H: Looking for solutions that are rooted in the past stays stuck in the phallic construction of time, with this step-by-step process of mutations that can simply be reversed if we just retrace our steps and unwind what we wound. Darwinian-type evolution can be followed backward like this, but constant infection can’t.
M: But just because there aren’t “solutions” doesn’t mean you abandon the problems. It means that you stick with the trouble, that you make decisions bearing in mind the entanglements that bind all life together.
H: It goes back to this question of hospitality. It is not about saving the coral reef, it is recognizing that the death of the coral reef constitutes a change in us—physically, in every aspect of our being. Something she said to this effect was that we have never been individuals.
M: Because even in our bodies the thing that each of us calls “me” is not actually a single species, it is a number of species, a multi-species community. We are not actually living as single-species individuals.
H: I always think about yeast. Candida is this community of organisms that live in your vagina, your vagina is their ecosystem and sometimes their thing gets totally out of control, and you have to eat a lot of yogurt and fix it. But you also need it under normal circumstances. That’s important, it isn’t just little species living off a big species, it’s not parasitic, it’s a part of you, a big generous knotting. I love my candida.
M: So, as Donna Haraway explains, this means that we’re not living really in the Anthropocene, the geological term used to talk about the present time period, in which humans are dominant on earth. I think she wants to undermine this question of dominance, which is very Darwinian, very dualistic and competition-centric.
H: Humans have an enormous impact on the way that earth-life evolves, that’s true, and if anything she is trying to highlight that. But she wants to trouble the conception of the Anthropocene, or anthropocentrism more generally, because she wants us to consider ourselves a species that other species live with and inside.
M: So, according to Haraway, the Anthropocene isn’t quite an adequate descriptor, because dominance isn’t an adequate framework. Instead she has this idea of the “multispecies cosmopolitanism.” That’s her term again.
H: And this extends easily from the biological realm to the cultural one, which is one reason why it’s such an exciting idea for me. For instance, it goes back to what I was saying before about technology and cybernetics.
M: Right, in the analog world it’s easy to think about individual appliances as being separate from one another, but there is really no way to think about digital systems without imagining this mesh, this complex system of feedback loops, this infinite nexus of dependence.
IV. Play with this Ball
M: So, Donna Haraway ended her talk with a cartoon of a bunch of dogs holding up a ball and saying, “And I say we go outside and play with this ball.” What do you think that means?
H: For her, I think that means that she’s not proposing an answer to anything. I mean, welcome to critical theory. But she wants to see what happens if we can stick with the trouble.
M: Meaning if we keep the meshing in mind, and at the forefront of all discourse. But what might happen if we do that? What’s the best possible outcome?
H: We become better, more conscious actors in the world, just knowing that we are beings intricately interwoven with our environment —
M: That, in fact, our environment is us.